Archive: How to choose the best hosting?

17-04-2007, Category Other

You face selection of hosting for your firm, but you have no certainty as to what and where to search?
Do you need assistance in comparing offers and provider selection?
With this article you will learn:

  • what is the meaning of parameters describing hosting packages
  • what are the duties of hosting service providers
  • which option is the best for you
  • which provider to select

What is hosting and when do we need it?

Hosting is – to put it simply – a service which offers access of a defined space and selected functionalities of internet servers. Hosting is used by big companies that do not maintain own server infrastructure or do it only partially.
For example – many companies possess own servers of electronic mail, but corporation www sites are maintained on outside servers.

What are the types of hosting services?

Internet Service Providers offer various types of hosting – appropriated to the needs of various customers.

Dedicated hosting
Dedicated hosting means offering access to the whole physical server, whereby administration may be on the side of both the provider and the customer, This is an option for services with high load intensity.

Specific type of dedicated hosting is collocation – i.e. making infrastructure data centre available to the customer’s server.
In this model customer places in the contractor’s data centre his own machine and makes use of the link to the Internet, power, air-conditioning, fire systems and other data centre functions.

Shared hosting
The most popular type of hosting, which meets the requirements of majority of customers, is shared hosting. Contractor creates on the physical server many virtual servers and makes available to every customer a given volume of disc space and a collection of functionalities.
In this option the customer deals only with his own www sites and configuration of e-mail. He does not have to bother about server safety, software updating and making regular safety copies. All these tasks are made by the contractor.
In the further part of the article we shall concentrate on shared hosting.

Free hosting
You can find many offers of “free” hosting on the Internet. Free in italics, because it is never free, in fact. In exchange of placing free publication of the www site we have to allow the server owner to attach advertisements.
Moreover, “free” hosting means usually lack of any guarantee of the level of the service.

What do all the parameters mean?

Internet Services Providers, especially those who deal in hosting publish on their www pages details of their offers and present variations of the service together with characteristic parameters.

The basic division of hosting services concern software environments, which support them. ASP is a software language. Servers, which serve it, have to have commercial software installed, which means, that such hosting is relatively expensive. Costs mean that more popular is PHP hosting – technology based on the Open Source principle, that is free. If you are not sure, which option is for you, it will most certainly be PHP.

Hosting Services Providers compete in the size of the disc space offered in packages. Options begin with 1GB (one Giga bite i.e. 1024 Mega bites) and reach to 30, 50 and even 250 GB, whereby majority of customers – most probably you too – would need maximum several hundreds MB. Not only for the www site, but also for the electronic mail. This minimal package, i.e. 1 GB, is a lot of space – if we take an average capacity for the www site meaning 30 MB and an average capacity for electronic post equal 50 MB.

Transfer limit
A more important parameter, which differentiates hosting packages is the number of data, which may be sent within the service in a given time unit. It is expressed in Giga bites per month or per year. The load within the framework of the service is generated by the users who visit the www site and by electronic mail. Apart from the number of visits it is its size, which counts. Similarly, apart from the number of e-mails you receive it is the size of enclosures, which counts.
Options offered by hosting firms begin with 300 GB/ year and reach up to even 2048 GB/ year (2 Tera bites).
It is hard to say what kind of load to expect. Therefore, it is better to begin with smaller package and, if needed, to change it to bigger one – migration in this direction never incurs additional payment.

Division of space, domains and e-mail box
Majority of hosting providers allows customers free division of disc space between the place for www site and electronic mail.
Similarly, majority of them allows the use of any number of domains and sub-domains as well as limitless e-mail boxes and aliases (additional e-mail addresses to existing boxes).

Services and databases
As far as the question of publishing several separate websites within one service, the situation looks differently – not every presently offered package includes such an option.
In case of data bases the situation looks the same. In majority of cases customers want one base – the most popular type is MySQL. If more bases are needed – one has to look into various options.

FTP Accounts
One FTP account is sufficient for installing and updating folders for website. Sometimes, however, more accounts are necessary, for example to use the space on the server to exchange folders with partners.

IP Addresses
Usually, digital IP address is ascribed to physical server and virtual servers active on it have only Internet addresses (URL).
Sometimes, however, for example because of security reasons, there is a requirement that a given www site should have own IP address. Hosting services providers know such needs and often consider such a possibility in more advanced packages.

Additional functionalities
Shared hosting has long ceased to be just a virtual server. Strong competition in this branch resulted in additional functionalities within the offered services, which make use of hosting as well as other advantages easier.

Functionality, which is a standard, is administration panel, which allows customers to manage individually configuration of the service.
It is one of the most important elements, which distinguishes the offer of individual providers. Each of them created and developed individual solutions and put much effort in making its usage as easiest as possible.
Such proposals as free usage or resignation of the service combined with money return permit to compare administration panels of several hosting providers.
Similarly, every good hosting contains every webmail – i.e. mechanism, which allows reading and sending e-mails with the help of internet browser.

Other, often encountered, additional functionalities are the basic statistic of load, anti-spam filter, anti-virus system, auto-responder, simple web sites creators, Internet shops’ mechanisms.

In descriptions of hosting services other parameters are often published (ex.: CGI, SSI, SSL, cron, mod-rewrite).
They will not be discussed here because of two reasons. Firstly, they respond to technologies used for creating www sites and should be taken into consideration in considering a given website – in the presence of its author, at best. Secondly, majority of packages offered on the market include them.

What are the responsibilities of Hosting Service Provider?

The basic responsibility of hosting provider is service accessibility – i.e. unbroken server functioning and its Internet connection. Www sites have to open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days per year. The same concerns the server, which has to receive and send electronic mail and make accessible the panel of service management.
Sometimes technical breaks may occur. If contractor write in the agreement definite dates (for example, every first Saturday of the month from 4.00 a.m. till 6.00 a.m.), others will inform about planned works appropriately earlier and will conduct them at night.
Other cases of server inaccessibility cannot be excused. Every failure should be followed by immediate reaction to remove it. Moreover – failures should not occur at all, which can be achieved by, for example doubling individual infrastructure elements.
If server accessibility is a critical issue for the customer, he may decide for a hosting package, which includes Service Level Agreement stating contractor’s financial responsibility for the level of a given service.
In cases, when accessibility falls within a month below the level defined in agreement (for example 98%), provider should pay an appropriate fine. 2% inaccessibility seems slight, but for a month it equals more than 14 hours, and for a year – a week of server stoppage!
As far as real level of hosting service is concerned, we need not rely on hosting provider’s honesty. One may use accessibility monitoring service; we shall discuss it later.

Other duties of hosting service providers result directly from the service level offered on the market set in a natural way.
Due to considerable competition we may request regular backup copies of our folders, guarantee of appropriate virtual server safety level, continuous updating of operation systems and software as well as – and most of all – high level customer service.

How much does it cost?

Before the bloom of the hosting market, which is the effect of the Internet development, providers of this service were scarce and the smallest package would then cost several hundred dollars per month.
At present prices of good shared hosting packets remain between 70 and 200 dollars per year.
Dedicated hosting i.e. the whole physical server may be at one’ own disposal at 350 dollars per month.
For some time hosting prices have remained at the same level, but package parameters change. Technologies go forward, hardware and links prices fall. Therefore, package with capacity several times bigger has the same price as two years ago.

Any special offers?

Strong competition on the hosting market forces aggressive promotion activities on the part of hosting providers. Yet, one has to go into details of such special offers, because they may easily catch you in a trap.
Sometimes you see tempting offers like “hosting S1”, where the payment for the first year is minimal – even below costs. Starting from the second year, the price returns to the one from regular pricelists (most often promotional one from last year) and the customer is astonished. Within a year one can forget a lot.

Apart from special prices for the first year or half a year, hosting providers offer gifts – office software or antivirus software, or coupons to use in complementary service providers shops, or just gadgets – cups, leashes, etc.

What is more interesting, some providers have several promotions at the same time, therefore, when a service is commissioned you have to decide and select one of, for example, three options.

Foreign Hosting – worth taking?

Due to scale effect, strong competition and developed infrastructure, some foreign (ex.: Asian) hosting offers are more attractive than local ones. Bigger capacity, load limits and lower prices. Due to quick development of Internet links, international geographical distances have no meaning for Internet.
Yet, there are some disadvantages of foreign hosting. Firstly, customer service does not always speak English and the difference in time zones, which make contact with administrator difficult. Time zone difference affects also another thing – technical breaks made at night in Asia will fall in the mid of the day in our country.
Secondly, exchange rates differences and formal issues. It is more difficult to square foreign invoices, with smaller advantage than American or even European ones.

Which option is the best for me?

As I have already written, the smallest package offered by hosting providers is sufficient for majority of customers. We talk here about the minimal package out of many packages, which are complete virtual servers – sometimes hosting service providers also offer mini-packages, which contain only electronic mail or space for www site, which can be called “symbolical”.
Thus, we are interested in “www servers” or “virtual servers”, or “www accounts”.

What do I understand under the statement “needs of majority of customers”? Majority of customers does not need several hundred e-mail boxes, because it is either a small firm or it has own server for electronic mail. Capacity of such a box does not have to be bigger than 50 MB, because mails will be checked regularly and individual enclosures only in exceptional cases are bigger than 10 MB.
That is, we can assume that 15 boxes 50 MB each should be sufficient. Out of a minimal package 1 GB we still have 250 MB to use. It means a lot of space for a website – with good graphics and animations.

I mentioned “special cases”. Of course, there are customers with special requirements – bigger packages are made for them. These are options for companies with several websites or with more multimedia contents – photos, films or musical pieces.
It is very difficult to estimate the load generated within the framework of hosting service. Probably – if our needs are as “average customer” we will need the simplest package. But, the genuine size of our needs will come out after the first months of functioning of the website. In administration panels of majority of hosting providers we can observe the load size generated by our www sites and e-mails. We can also change the package for the bigger one.

Which Hosting Provider to Choose?

Comparison of hosting service providers is not easy – because there are many of them.

How to choose?
For many Internet users natural reaction is posing questions concerning “hosting” in Internet search engine. Unfortunately, firms which appear in first positions do not have to be the best. They are just best positioned. One can have a look into Internet catalogues, but here again – hundreds of links. Those who can ask opinion of their friends are in the best situation. If someone whom you know, manages a www site, has a well justified opinion and can suggest a reliable provider.
If you do not know anyone who can suggest – you can read opinions on Internet forum and discussion lists (several links will be given in further chapters).
A good idea is to begin with the biggest ones. Contrary to appearances, their prices need not be the highest ones, but they have experience and potential.
When I say “the biggest ones” I do not think about corporations with huge capital, but those firms, which have the biggest number of customers.

What should we compare?
Apart from details list of the offer (parameters of the hosting package) it is advantageous to know more about provider’s infrastructure. For example, does the firm has own data base, or, if not, whose centre does he use, does he use renowned equipment, how many Internet links does he have and what is their band width. If the www site of the hosting provider does not include information about his infrastructure it means that it is a broker who sells space of other supplier – most probably, a foreign one. An important aspect is the politics of customer service. Are consultants accessible 24 hours per day, how many channels can be used to contact them (e-mail, telephone, chat), or what is the guaranteed time of response.
Judging from the information about the firm one can also read about its past activity, does it have any kind of certificate of quality and how many customers it has in its portfolio.

What more apart from hosting?

Usually, hosting service is accompanied by Internet domain, which guarantee unique – and easy to remember – address of the www site and address of electronic mail. Presently, practically all hosting service providers offer also domains – both global (.com, .net, .org, etc.) and domestic (for example: .tv, .it, .be). It is good to compare offers of several firms – on the domain market promotions can be even more aggressive than in the case of hosting service.
The easiest way (with regard to configuration) is to purchase the domain in the same firm, where we buy hosting. Especially that quite often it is added to the promotional hosting package. Here I mean normal commercial domain and not sub-domain given automatically by every hosting provider (for example, name – of firm. name – hosting

Traffic statistics
Many hosting service providers supply, as part of the offered packages functionality of the basic load statistics, which allow observing number of visits and the number of unique users who visit our www sites.
However, if you treat seriously your activity on the Internet, you should have much more information. Advanced load statistics do not cost a lot, but catch, gather and make accessible in a transparent form numerous data about those who visit you site.
Thanks to such a service you will have current information about the number of visits and users and you will also learn how many of them return, how they surf on your site, how much time they spend there, what are the most popular sections. You will know where they come from (countries, regions, cities) and event what operation systems and browsers they use.
You will get important data about the links – i.e. how they get to your site and what words they write in search engines.
All the data can be seen in the form of tables easy to read and schemes. Data can be filtered and exported – for example to Excel format.

Uptime monitoring
Detailed information about the quantity and total time of inaccessibility in a given time is important. In my opinion, more important function of uptime monitoring is alert, which guarantee immediate information about the service inaccessibility. This information is sent out per e-mail as well as optionally by SMS. Thus, you can be sure that your will learn about failure before your customers and you will not be astonished when they call.

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